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A whirlwind package of deals this weekend ‘may be the single most important day in the history of CO͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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December 4, 2023

Net Zero

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Tim McDonnell
Tim McDonnell

Hi everyone, welcome to a special COP28 edition of Net Zero.

On Saturday night, I stopped by the Wall Street Journal cocktail party in Dubai’s Marina district, a kind of Disney-fied approximation of Manhattan without the bars or sidewalk garbage. It was hosted in a yacht club (not, to my great disappointment, actually on a superyacht, although plenty were docked nearby) and featured a lot of bankers drinking Coronas with journalists and eager young entrepreneurs. One, a senior-ish person from a midsized European bank, lamented that the COP events that day had been kind of boring. This was a shock to me, since Saturday, as I relate in today’s story, might have been the most impactful single day in the history of COPs. The banker was not aware of this news, which I took as evidence of what COP has become: so sprawling and multifaceted that what draws many people here has nothing to do with the core negotiations (in the banker’s case, it was mainly to scout out a possible CEO visit next year).

I also mention the banker because today is COP28’s Finance Day, an excuse for executives from the world’s largest financial institutions to get together and talk about ways to make money off the energy transition. This is mostly a good thing: Governments can’t underwrite the climate fight alone, and the presence of so many private investors is a compelling sign that a massive global scale-up of clean energy is within reach. But the financiers here still have blind spots, such as the ongoing major under-investment in climate adaptation, which doesn’t present such an attractive profit case as renewables. Later this week, negotiators aim to settle on a new global goal for adaptation finance, and will have to brainstorm new ways to draw in private capital.

On the ground:

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  1. New energy reality
  2. Where the emissions are
  3. COP’s biggest day ever
  4. War’s carbon footprint
  5. Mayors get organized

The most exciting way to fight climate change with AI, and a warning from JPMorgan’s president.


The new energy reality

REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa/File Photo

Dozens of countries agreed to make sweeping changes in their energy sectors at COP28. At least 111 countries signed on to a plan to triple global renewable-energy capacity and double their annual rates of energy-efficiency improvements by 2030. And the U.S. agreed to join an alliance of 56 other countries that are committed to not build new coal-fired power plants and to phase out existing ones. The group doesn’t include China, by far the world’s top coal consumer. Finally, a group of 22 nations, including the U.S., agreed to triple their nuclear energy capacity by 2050. Of the three targets, the nuclear one will likely be hardest to achieve; the industry has been hit by rising costs and engineering challenges, and remains heavily burdened by regulation and bureaucracy. But in an interview with Semafor, David Turk, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, said the recent high-profile cancellation of the first advanced small nuclear plant in the U.S. “has gotten more attention than it probably deserves,” and “isn’t a harbinger of [small nuclear] technology not having a bright future.”


Where the emissions are

The biggest emitters are running out of ways to hide. A new data project led by Al Gore published an inventory this weekend of the emissions from 352 million individual CO2 sources around the world. Climate TRACE draws on satellite imagery, processed by AI, to analyze point-source emissions from most of the world’s power plants, industrial facilities, oil and gas fields, and other sources. The data, which are free to download, bypass the need for inconsistent voluntary disclosure, and allow companies to better identify major sources of emissions in their supply chains. Tesla and the automaker Polestar are among the brands collaborating with the TRACE project to root out emissions from their steel suppliers.


How COP28 is bending the emissions curve

Tim McDonnell
Tim McDonnell
REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

COP28 has been dominated today by the climate summit’s most controversial question: Should fossil fuels be phased “out” or “down”? Sultan al-Jaber, the summit president, outraged activists and many delegates here Sunday afternoon following the publication of a video from November in which he claimed there is “no science” to support a full phase-out.

The uproar has overshadowed efforts to address another question: To what extent is it possible to decarbonize oil and gas production and consumption? And over the weekend, there were several breakthroughs on this front, mostly dealing with emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane. They add up to what Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for the energy transition at the Environmental Defense Fund said “may be the single most important day in the history of COPs in terms of addressing temperature rise.”

Pledges are a dime a dozen at COP. What makes the suite of methane announcements feel more lasting is its structure, involving a novel, strategic combination of voluntary corporate peer pressure, high-dollar philanthropy, cutting-edge tech, and new regulation all tilting at the same aim.

Read on for more about the deals agreed, and why phasing "out" or phasing "down" may not even be the right question. →


War’s carbon footprint

Metric tons of CO2 caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to an analysis today by economists working with the Kyiv School of Economics, about equal to Belgium’s annual emissions. The figure includes fuel consumption by military units on both sides of the conflict, conflict-related wildfires, emissions related to reconstructing damaged buildings, and the rerouting of air travel around closed airspace. In an interview with Bloomberg at COP28, European Union Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said Europe’s accelerated energy transition has made it more difficult for Russia to wield its energy exports for geopolitical leverage.


Mayors get organized

REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

In addition to ministers and heads of state, COP28 is awash in mayors, officially participating in the summit for the first time. At their helm is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose foundation over the weekend committed $65 million to help local governments design and carry out clean energy and climate adaptation projects. Cities are responsible for 70% of global energy use and 75% of CO2 emissions, but municipal governments often struggle to get any resources to address them. That finance gap is especially huge in developing countries: A study released during COP28 by the Climate Policy Initiative found that just 1% of all climate finance from development banks reaches city governments in the global south.

On Saturday morning, Bloomberg Philanthropies invited a few dozen mayors to chat about their climate woes over coffee and chocolate muffins. The group included the mayors of Kitwe, Zambia; Santiago, Chile; Cincinnati, Bogota, and Reykjavík, among others. They shared stories about fighting with state and regional governments for limited federal funding, converting underused real estate into cooling and emergency relief centers, closing off downtown areas to cars, and wrangling community volunteers to install solar-power lampposts and plant trees. In many cases, mayors said they tapped local youth groups — their most passionate constituency on climate — to come up with ideas and carry them out.

“Cities are really left to fend for themselves on climate,” Erion Veliaj, the mayor of Tirana, Albania, told me. “So you have to get more creative, and the stuff you can’t afford, you have to crowdsource.”

Mayors also have to work together, said Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown and recently elected co-chair of C40, a global network of climate-focused mayors. She spent two and a half years fruitlessly trying to raise money for the city’s first mass public transit system, a cable car. In the end, it was other mayors who helped her figure out how to successfully design a bankable project and make connections with the right private financiers — and the project is under construction now.

Power Plays


New Energy

  • A group of European investors placed a $1.2 billion bet on building transmission lines to carry power from renewable energy farms to U.S. cities. The fund will have to compete with the same rising interest rates that have hampered other clean energy projects this year.

REUTERS/Colleen Howe

Fossil Fuels

  • Brazil wants to join OPEC+ — but only as an observer. That’s what the country’s leader said in Dubai, clarifying earlier reports that Brazil would accept an invite to join the oil-producers’ club.
  • The U.S. has accelerated efforts to refill its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the Energy Department said, following a record drawdown last year.

Politics & Policy

  • China is readying new goals and measures for its “nationally determined contributions” to the Paris Agreement for 2030 and 2035, the country’s climate envoy said in Dubai. But a new report by a New Zealand research institute said Beijing was not sufficiently factoring its agriculture industry into reforms to cut carbon emissions, prioritizing food security instead.

Climate Impacts

  • Caribbean and Latin American countries face a brutal hit from climate change, which may result in their economies being up to 12% smaller by 2050, and require investments of as much as a tenth of national GDP, according to new analysis from U.N. researchers.
One Good Text

David Sandalow, inaugural fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and a former senior official in the U.S. Department of Energy. Sandalow published a comprehensive review of the risks and rewards of AI for climate at COP28.

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